Equality Commission investigating Spend Local card scheme
Northern Ireland’s High Street Voucher Scheme is to be investigated following a complaint that under-18s were excluded.
The Equality Commission investigation will look at whether the Department for the Economy failed to comply with its approved equality scheme. The complaint, from someone who is under 18, is being assisted by the Children’s Law Centre (CLC).
A spokesperson for the department has said it had carried out an equality impact assessment which was published online on September 10 and stated that “the impact regarding age is judged to be minor”.
A department spokesperson said that given the tight timeframe in which to deliver the scheme, from an affordability, operational and legal perspective, there is a strong rationale for restricting eligibility for the scheme to adults aged over 18.
“The Department complied fully with regard to its commitments set out in its Equality Scheme,” the spokesperson said.
The scheme was set up to encourage consumer spending and help businesses badly affected by the Covid pandemic and more than 1.4 million people applied.
Claire Kemp, policy officer at the Children’s Law Centre, said the department failed to carry out an equality screening exercise until the young person complained, despite the scheme being announced in February 2021.
She said the screening document provided to the young person was completed, signed off and published on the same day as the response to their complaint on 10 September.
“This was not the earliest opportunity as is required, it was an afterthought,” she said.
“Decision makers have a duty to ensure the decisions they make do not adversely impact or discriminate against sections of the population.
“This includes children and young people. To ensure they avoid making decisions that discriminate they have to carry out an equality screening exercise at the earliest opportunity.
“In this case it was clear the Department for the Economy failed to do that.
“What chance do children and young people have against discrimination if executive departments fail to uphold even their own equality duties?”
The department’s assessment stated that there were regulatory and financial concerns around issuing cards to minors, child-specific data protection issues and verification problems as no datasets currently exist which could be used to confirm the identity of 16 and 17-year-olds.
Green Party NI MLA for North Down, Rachel Woods, said: “It’s unfair that 16- and 17-year-olds were excluded from the Spend Local scheme, especially as many of them have worked during the pandemic in low-paid retail or hospitality jobs, and would have benefitted from the ability to participate.
“The Children’s Law Centre has said that the Department of the Economy had failed to carry out an equality screening exercise on the scheme before a complaint was made. I welcome the announcement of an investigation by the Equality Commission to establish if due process was followed. It’s vital that the public can have confidence that the Executive will ensure that equality considerations are of paramount concern in policy-making.”